An Arab NATO: The Birth of Another Black Swan in the Middle East?

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A US fighter jet during practice maneuvers over the desert (Image credit: Master Sgt. Benjamin Bloker/US Air Force)

by Elbay Alibayov | Reflections on the week past

An introduction to contingency

It was in the mid-1970’s. A professor who taught us the history of Communist Party (a party veteran who seemed to spend all his life being the Bolshevik, starting from his participation in the civil war of 1918-20) giving up to demands of the University leadership to introduce new methods of teaching (even in such a dogmatic subject for the Soviet Union as he taught) decided to have a role play in one of tutorials. He carefully selected the safest (in his view) topic—the intra-party discussion on the role of trade unions. In history, the proponents were two prominent figures of the time—Lenin and Trotsky, and the former’s position dominated, albeit after a dramatic stand-off.

This did not work out like that at our tutorial. The guy who performed as Trotsky was a way better prepared and perhaps was a more talented polemist than his opponent. By the time the poor professor realized what was happening, it was too late—Trotsky defeated Lenin convincingly, to the greatest delight of the audience (not because of personal sympathies—these were times of growing cynicism among the young generation about communist theory and practice and leadership—but rather because of rare opportunity of having fun with a subject considered taboo; even then, more than twenty years after Stalin’s death, you could make jokes about anything but communist party). And when he tried to intervene and smooth the effect of this disaster by some crafted concluding statement, the bell rang announcing the end of the lesson so everyone rushed away to spread this hilarious news around.

This was my first “practical” encounter with a notion known in political science as contingency. What if this happened in real life? Back in 1921, by winning the debate Trotsky would have secured the position of Lenin’s successor. Him, and not Stalin, being the party leader means the entire different history of the twentieth century. It takes the outcome of one (rather insignificant in the universal order of things) event that happens at right moment (also called a critical juncture) to have so profound consequences that they can change the course of history…

History: predestined or unpredictable?

There are different ways one may look at political processes and how decisions by various actors taken in pursuit of their own goals coincide at certain moments, to produce the higher-level outcomes. This coincidence of (supposedly) free choices made by individual actors as a creator of history has been well observed by Tolstoy: “There are two sides to the life of every man, his individual life, which is the more free the more abstract its interests, and his elemental hive life in which he inevitably obeys laws laid down for him. Man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historic, universal, aims of humanity. A deed done is irrevocable, and its result coinciding in time with the actions of millions of other men assumes an historic significance.”  However, in line with his views on philosophy of history he then goes on to conclude that consequences of all human actions are predestined and inevitable. (Actually, this is the core idea of a five-hundred-character strong work which some argue is a philosophical treatise more than a novel.)

To the contrary, contemporary political science uses the notion of contingency to explain uncertainty and unpredictability of historical processes. As a situation where outcomes are uncertain, contingency is a consequence of choice (and struggle) and an historical accident (or coincidence of choices) at a given point in time. Both are simultaneously constrained and induced by multiple contexts. And that is why it is impossible to accurately predict (let alone estimate along predefined parameters) the outcome of any process. What we frequently read are the explanations to things that already occurred, offered with the power of hindsight. That’s not as difficult. When it comes to the future (even in immediate term) the best we can do is to anticipate and (as risk managers would advise) to get ready.

Things could have been different: South Africa

Let’s take an example—the end of apartheid in South Africa. On the one hand, it was a non-contingent (predictable and inevitable) process—that is, it absolutely makes sense to assume that it was an issue of time, given the global, Africa continental processes, and the dynamics of locally-driven power struggle. But here the non-contingent view which relies solely on underlying structures and institutions ends. And it appears that whatever important, it is not enough to explain what has happened. Because for it to happen at this particular point in time (and time matters) and in the manner it occurred (also matters, greatly) there was a window of opportunity opened.

There were two sources of it. First was the agency—represented by the image and cause of Nelson Mandela and those collective actors like the African National Congress which persistently maintained the struggle and negotiations with the National Party; and equally, if not more importantly, by the unilateral decision of F.W. de Klerk to launch a fundamental reform and later on, to overcome the Afrikaner right-wing opposition and call an all-white referendum in 1992, on whether to continue negotiating an agreement with the ANC). And second, there was pure luck of this two (starting from the story of de Klerk becoming the party leader and president in 1989) coinciding at certain moment and for a period long enough to enable an effective chemistry (it has been argued in literature that history would have been different if, for example, de Klerk was assassinated early in the process).

Embracing contingency therefore calls for accepting the possibility of (numerous, at times) alternatives. It means that (to borrow from political theorist Andreas Schedler), “Things could be different. Things could be otherwise in the present. They could have been different in the past. They could change in the future.”

The origins of modern jihadism

As it is clear, those critical junctures and windows of opportunity do not seat and wait for us to grab them. These are our persistent actions that, with the help of luck, converge to create certain ciphers that enable them. How it works? In pursuit of power (that is the essence of any political game) the individual and collective actors have to position (and re-position) themselves strategically, vis-à-vis their real and perceived rivals. For that they continuously assess (better even, interpret) the environment, in order to find (or create) the room for maneuvering and then act upon it. Given that all the actors are in this kind of activity simultaneously, there is a chance of congregation that goes much beyond the cumulative effect.

There is one interesting feature which deserves good consideration. This congregation works in many ways as a chemical reaction and can produce an unintended direct results or side products. Sometimes, this will be known almost immediately and in other cases we would learn about it years later. In any case, it is irreversible. Let’s follow this on one of my favorite examples—how jihad became a transnational movement.

It somehow happened that by pure coincidence three otherwise not directly related events occurred in a span of one year, 1979. The events were: the Islamic revolution in Iran, the seizure of Grand Mosque in Mecca by Juhayman al-Otaybi, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The first event directly challenged the Saudi rulers’ authority in the Muslim world (as contrary to the Kingdom where the ruling House had to rely on sheikhs for various religious matters, here the clerics themselves were running the country; moreover these were Shi’a clerics). Second event, driven by religious zeal of the Kingdom’s Salafist youth (some, as al-Otaybi himself, from well-known families) cast doubt on the House of Saud’s legitimacy due to allegations in corruption and perceived openness towards the West. These two events combined were too big a test of the Saudi regime’s ambition and resilience; they needed a room for maneuvering, in order to win time to restore the image and to regroup the capabilities.

And this is at the time when the Soviet Union, by invading Afghanistan, offered them (inadvertently) something that Saudi rulers interpreted as a window of opportunity. Directing the religious enthusiasm of radically-minded young Saudis towards fighting a holy war against the invaders of Muslim lands would serve, they thought, a two-fold objective of showing the global leadership and getting rid of extremists at home. Moreover, this move was much welcomed by the United States who was seeking an ally (in addition to Pakistan already in game) on the ground in Afghanistan, to counter the Soviets. The rest (including tens of billions of government and private funds, training, weapons, propaganda campaigns and global recruitment of mujahedeen) was technical detail.

What is not technicality is that by transferring the traditionally localized discourse of jihad into transnational enterprise the Saudi Kingdom and its allies set in motion an irreversible process (that also went out of their control once the Soviets’ war in Afghanistan ended) which brought personalities like Osama bin Laden to prominence and resulted in the creation of al-Qaeda and the modern religion-inspired global terrorism and militancy as we know them. The present and future history might have been much different if these three events did not coincide by accident, interpreted in way they were by key agents, and played as catalysts to the process in making.

One important note here. Did you notice the emphasis on the agents’ interpretation of realities and windows of opportunity? It is critical. Our assessment as external analysts does not matter in this situations (unless we are in position to advise the decision makers, and even then it is not necessarily the dominant, even if informed professional, opinion—just look how political leadership ignores the advice coming from their own intelligence community); what matters is how the agents themselves interpret the reality and how do they see the threats posed and the opportunities these realities offer to them. Only then we can understand why they act in certain situations as they do.

The idea of Arab NATO

In the weeks leading to Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh and its aftermath, there has been an idea of establishing an Arab NATO floating around. It was not aired in formal speeches during the summit and bilateral meetings, though. But, as frequently the case, it might have been discussed behind the closed doors elsewhere and just thrown into the social media space as a trial balloon, to gauge the reactions (especially those in Iran).

That is an interesting development. The Middle East is in turmoil; perhaps in the worst stretch of instability, in decades. Collapsed states, civil violence, proxy wars, terrorist groups and religious militancy married with poor economic performance, demographic pressures and deep societal and political, ideological divisions (frequently along ethnic and religious/sectarian lines)—all mixed up with political interests of local, regional and global state and non-state actors. The region urgently needs some effective security mechanism. Now, the question is whether the idea of an Arab military alliance offers an opportunity to establish lasting peace and order in the region or it will be counterproductive, and instead of leading to stability will result in an interstate war?

This will depend on a host of factors but primarily on how the key actors will interpret the concept in terms of threats and opportunities to their national interests. For now, the prime proponent of the military alliance is Saudi Arabia (with the backing from the US and most probably, the consent of Israel). The Saudis seem to interpret the developments as posing yet another existential threat and see the militarization as an opportunity to address a number of problems in one move. At the same time they see a window of opportunity in the new US administration’s Mideast policy (such as focusing only on terrorism and encouraging the region’s actors take care of their own security without the American deep involvement, and hostility towards Iran).

What they would like to achieve is to face down their arch-rival Iran, to regain a leadership role among the Arab states and broader in the Muslim world, to eliminate the extremist and militant movements threatening the Kingdom’s security, and to win the time and support necessary to translate the ambitious economic reform plans (Vision 2030) into reality. Almost everything sounds familiar, does it not? There are differences though, between the present day and the situation four decades ago.

Back then in the end of 1970’s-80’s it took only Saudis and the Americans (and Pakistan, by extension) to decide on a joint endeavor; the playground was somewhere else; Iran was locked in the war with Saddam’s Iraq; there was plenty of money available, from both government coffers and private sources.

This time around the cause is not as straightforward. The theater is not far away but in your backyard. The threat of home-grown extremists is much higher and it is direct. Iran is much stronger militarily and on ascending line in terms of economy and international support (thanks to the nuclear deal). Also, this time there are more interests involved from external actors—it is not only usual suspects the US and Russia, but also Turkey, China, the EU, and Pakistan (involved indirectly but very much interested).

At the top of it, there is a need for an Arab (even limited, not an idealistic pan-Arab) consensus at least among key players, like the Emiratis, Egyptians, Qataris, Jordanians who don’t seem to be on the same page about security priorities. Moreover, the row in the wake of Donald Trump’s Middle East trip between Qatar and the rest of the Gulf States (mostly, Saudi Arabia) accusing each other in the state support to terrorism (involving old and new grievances and allegations, from Qatar’s relations with Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood, and Syrian “rebel” groups to Al Jazeera’s alleged links to al-Qaeda, to name a few) shows that they are far from being united even on basic issues.

The major opponent (and if to follow the rhetoric of the summit in Riyadh, the main target) of the move, Iran, watches the developments closely. How they interpret the concept and the enabling reality is equally important. We do not know much about it. What we see and hear (public statements, newspaper articles, addresses, etc.) are the tip of the iceberg. From these, the Iranians do not seem to be very concerned. Beyond the surface there is for sure an intensive work in multiple directions. I won’t speculate on that, but one window of opportunity for them is offered by the same actor who supports their rival—the United States. By implementing an isolationist foreign policy and even alienating its traditional allies and partners, the US gives a chance to Iran to explore those divides and to build reinforcing relations with the European Union and NATO members that may prove very important in its strategic game. But it is equally possible that the conservative factions in Tehran would prevail and drive the country in an opposite direction, towards military confrontation…

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The Middle East is a complex system. As such, it is more than a mere collection of states and territories. How those units interact as a whole matters more than anything else, including the individual properties of those units or their bilateral relations and interfaces. This implies that in order to understand the Middle East one has to understand it in its entirety. And it is my humble opinion that if there is a solution to security problems of this region, it should be the one that takes the Middle East as one whole, without dividing it in parts or viewing it through the prism of some individual relationship or self-interest. As we have seen in this piece, the past and present of the region could have been different. We say it with regret, as we see the missed opportunities while the products of past mistakes have produced Black Swans terrifying the region and the entire world.

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Farewell to Arms? Seen Nowhere on the Horizon

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Saudi special security forces show their skills during a military parade at a base near Mount Arafat, southeast of the holy city of Mecca, on November 22, 2009  (Image credit: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

by Elbay Alibayov | Reflections on the week past

We are all defence and military this week. An arms deal with Saudi Arabia worth up to US$110 billion, followed by the Pentagon’s US$639 billion budget proposal for FY2018 (“dead on arrival” because apparently it was not big enough). And to complete it all, the NATO summit in Brussels.

All three security levels (country, regional, and global) are covered. An array of topics claimed to be targeted (from national defence interests to global threats like terrorism, to job creation) or flagged by independent observers as issues of concern (like civilian casualties and human rights). And this way or another, it is all about military spending; or, to be precise, about military spending (militarization) under the pretext of ensuring state and human security (eventually at the expense of other government expenditure). This is not a topic to be taken lightly—in the world of “limited resources and unlimited needs” we have to make (supposedly, rational) choices. Do we?

How much justified is, for example, US$1.69 trillion (which happens to constitute no less than 2.2 percent of global GDP) in military spending in 2016 alone? And this is at the time when according to Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), the same year the total number of deaths from violent conflicts across the world equalled to 103,330; of them 87,018 lives were lost in state-based violence; 9,034 in non-state violence, and 6,278 in one-sided violence. Add to this tens of millions of forcibly displaced people (both internally and refugees), those who are exposed to starvation and infectious deceases due to violence—and you quite get an idea of the scale of the problem. But to make sense of it, we first have to reflect on some basic questions.

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How should we think about relationship between militarization and security, stability? How important is it to maintain high military spending (which includes items from procurement of arms and equipment to wages, training and social benefits to research and development)? How justified is it to cut public funding from non-defence areas in order to build up further militarization? And finally, does organized violence (whether state-based and non-state-based armed conflicts or one-sided violence) persist because governments don’t spend enough on security or the use of armed force is driven by other (social, economic, political, ideological, psychological) factors and cannot be contained by ever increasing military budgets? Or is it the arms production and trade (both formal and trafficking) that itself contributes to fuelling many conflicts?

There is no single or simple way to answer those questions. Especially considering that universal rules (like the one by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature that there has been an extraordinary but little-recognized, millennia-long, worldwide reduction in all forms of violence) are difficult to establish, and they may not necessarily work in all regions and at all times (especially nowadays, when the pace of developments and changes, and thus volatility are uber-high).

There are also different forms of conflict and therefore the relation between each form and external factors (like military spending) may vary greatly. Moreover, the forms are also changing. Take for example state-based armed conflicts—that is, armed contests over power and/or territory where one of sides is the government. The established classification recognizes four forms of state-based conflict (called wars if they cause more than one thousand battle-deaths a year): inter-state conflicts (between states); extra-state conflicts (between a state and an armed group outside the state’s own territory); intra-state conflicts (between a government and a non-state group); and internationalized intra-state conflicts (when the government, or an armed group opposing it, receives military support from one or more foreign states). Well, how are we going to categorize the wars in Iraq and Syria? For the majority of states involved, both wars fall under more than one sub-category, and each sub-category in turn is subject to a different set of driving forces, contexts and circumstances.

Another challenge (as ever) is causality. We first look at the correspondence, and if there is any, then at the casual direction in relations between (extensive) military spending and security. What I am interested in here is, whether it is true that more military spending by governments leads to sustained improvements in both state and human security (where human security is not only saving lives from war, genocide, displacement, epidemics and famine, but means freedom from violence and from the fear of violence, with direct and indirect implications on fundamental freedoms and basic human rights). To answer this question one has to undertake a full-blown research based on empirical evidence, and perhaps employing a sophisticated computation and modelling (to cover a broad range of variables over extended periods of time). However, it is possible to make sense of developments without this heavy armoury, simply viewing them in right context.

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Take for example, the controversial arms deal between the US and Saudi Arabia signed this week. Let’s look first at the trend. In the last decade, the region’s governments have significantly increased their military spending, and weapons purchase in particular. In 2012-2016 their share among global importers of major weapons equalled to 29 percent, compared to (no small otherwise) 17 percent in 2007-2011. Out of top five arms importers in 2012-2016, three were from the Middle East and North Africa: Saudi Arabia with 8.2 percent, United Arab Emirates with 4.6 percent, and Algeria with 3.7 percent of global imports, respectively.

Note that this happens at the time when oil prices have dropped drastically and the global trend is leaning towards reliance on renewables and clean energy. The Gulf states being heavily dependent on commodity exports, find themselves in a dare financial situation. Never mind, they say. But the facts tell a different story: “Saudi Arabia faces an imminent economic crisis. … Riyadh cannot sustainably rely on oil as its principle source of national income. Over the last 18 months, the Kingdom has used 17% of its Public Investment Fund (PIF) to cover the government’s operating costs. If this trend persists, Riyadh will completely deplete the PIF by 2024.”

The true burden of military spending on the economy becomes apparent when we see it as a share of a country’s GDP: in 2016, in the Middle East it was at staggering 6.0 percent (compared to 2.0 percent in Africa, 1.6 percent in Europe, 1.3 percent in Americas, 1.8 percent in Asia). As mentioned above, this money is not spent out of some surplus magically appearing in the government coffers; it is spent at the expense/instead of something else. And this “something else” happens to be human, social and economic development. As pointed out by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in its 2016 yearbook, a comparison of trends in spending on the military, health and education since 1995 shows that whereas the majority of countries have increased health and education spending while reducing military spending, the trend in the Middle East has gone in the opposite direction. There is no better indication of where the governments’ priorities are.

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Of course, there is also a game in play. Bluff is always present in politics, whether at local or global level. Saudi Arabia is in acute need of cash. The regime knows that they cannot afford large military spending. Actually, they have decreased the military expenditure last year, and as a result are not in the top third position of spenders, giving up this “honourable place” in the rankings to Russians. But they are also aware that others know that too, and are watching them closely. So the deal so ambitious is (at least in part) to throw dust in someone’s (say, arch-rival Iran—which happens to be on ascending line thanks to Nuclear Deal-incited release of sanctions—or would-be partners in emerging Muslim countries of East Asia) eyes. The deal is not binding and can stay stalled for years (until each letter of offer and acceptance (LOA) it is comprised of is signed and paid for thus making it to the contract), but will send a signal to anyone around that Saudis are in no short supply of money, resolve, ambition and support to this matter.

Whether the others buy this bluff is another story, but the point is made—and with such a skillful showman as Mr Trump in game, it is performed quite theatrically to impress everyone, at home and abroad. (As a side note, such a show with inflated package price serves the US administration’s goals too—to demonstrate to the voters at home their power and influence, to claim more jobs and benefits to economy etc; Vice Adm. Joseph Rixey, director of the DSCA was quick to announce: “When completed, it will be the largest single arms deal in American history.”  What an accomplishment!)

Still, this does not change the overall intent of the affair. And just to be clear on that point: the rulers of Saudi Arabia will make sure to purchase big part of the arms package, especially considering that first, it is a political commitment before the strategic partner (who is so kind to take sides in the ages-long Sunni-Shi’a power contest); second, the delivery under contracts may take long years thus allowing some flexibility with regards to payments; and also, Saudi rulers want to build the military production capabilities at home by 2030, so part of contracts would work to this end.

That is all good, but the question is who will pay for this. Well, I have an answer: I assume this would be the young generation of Saudi Arabia (who are already frustrated by worsening life standards, unemployment and various barriers in social life) and of other countries in the region (who are either equally robbed by their governments of public investment in their future or are unlucky to be born in the neighbouring countries which serve as playground to use those weapons purchased). Whether they like it or not.

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Where is it all heading? Marc Lynch has nailed it in his recent article that, emboldened by such deals (and the Washington’s backing) the region’s regimes will find it easier “to sustain their crackdown on civil society and political dissent” when faced with difficulties and popular resistance to meet the militarization commitments, “but such repression will exacerbate the governance failures and political grievances which lay the ground for another round of instability. By almost every indicator—economic, political, security or social—the Arab regimes upon which Trump is doubling down are more unstable now than they appeared to be in the years leading up to the 2011 uprisings.”

So in response to the question posed in the opening part of this piece, it would be fair to say that militarization (through extensive military spending, among others) makes the Middle East governments more vulnerable and the entire region increasingly unstable—it encourages violent conflicts and contributes to their escalation instead of containing them. It is counterproductive, whether in immediate or long term. And I am sure we will arrive at similar conclusion when analyzing other regions. Think of Africa (military spending across the continent has increased by almost half in the past ten years). Think of South Asia (with the top importer of major weapons, India and no less ambitious Pakistan). Think… how much good could have been done instead.

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Assessment of Worldwide Threats: ISIL, al-Qaeda, Taleban

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) presented its written “Worldwide Threat Assessment” to the Senate last week. The analysis confirms that the Islamic State is capable of sustaining insurgencies in both Iraq and Syria, Afghan security continues to “deteriorate,” and al Qaeda remains a threat in several parts of the globe.

via The US Intelligence Community’s newest assessment of the jihadist threat — FDD’s Long War Journal

Can Hamas Afford the Cost of Ending Gaza’s Isolation?

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Palestinian students and supporters of Hamas during a rally ahead of Student Council elections at Bir Zeit University, West Bank, Palestine, April 26, 2016 (Image credit: Majid Mohammed/AP).

by  | World Politics Review

EDITOR’S COMMENT: Observers are watching closely as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with U.S. President Donald Trump today at the White House, where the two leaders will discuss prospects for a possible peace agreement. A potential Palestinian-Israeli deal hinges in part on a push for Palestinian unity; Abbas, who leads the Fatah party that governs the West Bank, has recently increased financial pressure on Hamas, the militant group and political party that controls the Gaza Strip, in a bid to soften its hard-line against Israel. Earlier this week, Hamas issued a new charter that moderates its stance on Israelis and Jews, accepts 1967 borders, cuts ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, and seeks to develop stronger ties with Egypt.

These were some of the moves Khaled Hroub outlined last May, as he assessed ways for Hamas to end its ever-growing isolation. According to U.N. reports, Gaza will become “uninhabitable” by 2020—a spiraling humanitarian emergency that only a shift in Hamas’ political positioning could alleviate. “The group’s strategy to defend itself was largely based on strengthening its military while immersing itself in the lives of Gaza’s 2 million residents, making any effort to extract it from power without inflicting unbearable cost on Gaza’s population virtually impossible,” Hroub wrote. “This of course has had great repercussions for Gazans, as some in the outside world have come to view Hamas and Gaza as almost synonymous.” With a new set of principles aimed to improve its international image and promote reconciliation, is Hamas ready to cede ground?

“The real question is whether Hamas can make a concerted push for national reconciliation, which could be the least-costly way out of today’s deadlock.”

Read the full article.

Changing the Global Order: Give as Much as You Take

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Reflections on the week past

by Elbay Alibayov

There is reading and reading. There are things you have learnt to read and watch, and subsequently process with impartiality. This concerns (all) the media and (most of) “independent” think-tank publications, on a broad range of contemporary power contestation events and processes—from elections & referenda to international conferences and negotiations, rhetoric of politicians big and small, wars and covert actions, and so forth.

Majority of these pieces are being produced with intention to appeal to our emotion in a certain way, and therefore one would do well keeping them under control. You do not enjoy much reading or watching this intentionally tailored stuff, but definitely find pleasure in analysis. And then there are pieces you enjoy reading and re-reading, numerous times. Always with excitement. And always with intellectual benefit.

For me, this week was of The Gift by Marcel Mauss. It happened by accident: I read an interesting post by Dan Ariely where he described a gift he had asked his friends for his fifty-year birthday. In my comment, I enquired (with the reference to and quoting Mauss’ masterpiece) whether he was ready to reciprocate, and to do so with even higher value (“We must give back more than we have received”) of the gift he has so humbly suggested (a favourite book with explanation why the giver loves it so much—what I called the key to their soul). Naturally, it served as a trigger… the next thing I did was retrieving the soft copy of The Gift from my archive and diving into its so familiar and still mysteriously so precious content…

Three episodes, the same philosophy

Life is going on however, and the geopolitical game’s current phase was unfolding with three episodes linked to each other, to indicate an abrupt shift in the strategies and tactics the major players opt to employ.

In one episode, which started with the use of chemical weapons in Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, the moves and counter-moves by key players (Americans and Russians in this case) haven’t resulted in any tangible alteration of the previous balance on the ground: the UN Security Council failed to pass a resolution (vetoed by Russia); initial enquiry by Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has established that sarin or similar gas was used, but further investigation is under question mark (Russians demanding “an objective investigation” by a body representative of all sides concerned); meanwhile, chemical weapons were used by ISIL in the vicinity of Mosul, Iraq, against the Iraqi military (with American and Australian advisers in presence); and it seems that the American airstrike only emboldened the stands of Assad and his allies.

In another episode, the largest non-nuclear bomb in the US Military’s arsenal ever used in combat, the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB, aka Mother of All Bombs) was thrown on the ISIL-Khorasan Province (ISIL-KP) base in Nangarhar, Afghanistan. According to initial reports, 94 militants had been killed in the strike. No civil casualties were reported, while the Pentagon has not released any information on the physical and environmental damage caused.

The bombing has evoked mixed reactions. The Government of Afghanistan demanded even more MOABs. The opposition (for example, the former president Hamid Karzai) strongly condemned it. Some speculated that the seemingly bold move was in response to the Russians’ and Pakistanis’ attempts to negotiate with the Taleban, and thus to broker an Afghanistan deal in own favour.

Russians, in their turn, responded with reports about their Father of All Bombs, which they claimed to be four times as destructive. While the global players were engaged in power showcasing, the Taleban proceeded with attacks: At least 140 soldiers were killed and many others wounded in Mazar-e Sharif—the deadliest attack ever on an Afghan military base.

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The third episode is unfolding around the U.S.-North Korea stand-off. This confrontation thus far is about muscle flexing and trash talking. Examples of muscle flexing include North Koreans launching, albeit unsuccessfully, yet another missile test; while Americans, in addition to demonstrating their resolve in the previous bombing episodes described above, started the inspection of their nuclear arsenal and ordered an “armada” of the USS Carl Vinson strike group to the Sea of Japan as a warning.

In turn, the trash-talk on both sides is exemplified by numerous verbal attacks and warnings of a devastating “pre-emptive attack”, including Vice President Mike Pence’s bombastic rhetoric all through his Asia-Pacific tour, reiterating that “the era of strategic patience” was over and that Kim Jong-un would do well not testing the President Trump’s resolve; North Korea responding with accusations of America’s warmongering and warning that they were “ready to react to any mode of war desired by the U.S.” and so forth—but in all instances it has been much beyond the “usual” limits, rather recklessly pushing the boundaries.

And to be sure, this go playground is not solely about America vs. North Korea. A lot of pressure the U.S. puts on China (one would wonder, why the bombing of the Syrian airbase had to be conducted exactly at the time of Xi Jinping’s visit to the U.S., and announced over a “beautiful piece of chocolate cake”). China feels uneasy and struggles to keep the balance, because it is going to bear most of consequences of the war between the two. Obviously, Japan and South Korea are in game; and even Russia is concerned and has reportedly moved some of its defence systems to the Korean border.

Towards new principle

Three episodes of geopolitical game of go are developing simultaneously in three discrete hot spots (Middle East/Syria, Central Asia/Afghanistan, South East Asia/North Korea) and with involvement of different sets of global and regional players (U.S., Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Japan, South Korea, to name a few) in each case. What is common though is the resolve of all the players to engage in zero-sum game where winner takes all. (And not only in these three episodes—in foreign engagements we seem to be guided by only one principle, that is “give as least as necessary and take as much as possible”.) This raises the stakes while increasingly making clear to anyone that with such an attitude we as humanity risk ending this game with losers all around.

Good books are always relevant. They are always contemporary. They are always insightful. Every time you read them you find something new, which leaves you wondering how it come you have not found it out in your previous readings of the great thing. Take for example one of concluding notes of The Gift: “Thus, from one extreme of human evolution to the other, there are no two kinds of wisdom. Therefore let us adopt as the principle of our life what has always been a principle of action and will always be so: to emerge from self, to give, freely and obligatorily. We run no risk of disappointment.”

Mauss then proceeds to illustrate his thought with a Maori proverb: “Give as much as you take, all shall be very well.” Sounds as perfect principle for international relations and a new global order to me.

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The Significance of the Turkish Referendum

 

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The campaign slogan in Istanbul reads: “YES: Both the Word & the Decision Belong to the Nation” Image credit: CNN

On Sunday, 16 April Turkish voters will decide in a national referendum on the type of their country’s government—whether to retain the (hard fought for) parliamentary system or to opt for an executive presidency. The new constitution (incorporating 18 proposed amendments) abolishes the prime minister’s office and divides power between parliament, as legislative, and the president, as both the head of the state and the chief executive. But that is not all. Technically, the decision making and especially oversight functions of the parliament will be diminished. On the top of it, the new system will give the president an authority to keep control over his/her political party and dominate the legislative branch, politically.

In its opinion published last month, the Venice Commission (a body of constitutional experts of the Council of Europe) concluded that “the substance of the proposed constitutional amendments represents a dangerous step backwards in the constitutional democratic tradition of Turkey.” Moreover, the Commission stressed “the dangers of degeneration of the proposed system towards an authoritarian and personal regime” and warned that the “the timing is most unfortunate and is itself cause of concern” due to the state of emergency in Turkey (a concern shared by many analysts that the current situation gives the new constitution’s main proponents–that is, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development party (AKP)–a high hand in promoting their stand).

These and other arguments expressed by various international organisations and independent think tanks mostly concern the implications of the proposed constitutional amendments on the state of democracy and human rights in Turkey. What about its foreign policy and the role Turkey has traditionally played in regional affairs? In his analysis published through Reality Check series of the Geopolitical Futures, Jacob L. Shapiro claims that the referendum outcome does not matter in this respect, for regardless of the result, Turkey will continue rising as a regional power.

“Regardless of whether Erdoğan stays in power or another leader takes over, Turkey will continue maturing as a nation and becoming a regional power surrounded on almost all sides by unenviable threats. If the referendum passes … [nothing] will be as determinative as the geopolitical constraints forcing Turkey back into the pantheon of the world’s major powers. On that, Turkey doesn’t get a vote – and its increase in power will define the country’s future more than any referendum can.”

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Doubling Down on America’s Misadventure in Yemen

by Perry Cammack and Richard Sokolsky | War on the Rocks

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                                                 Rally of the Houthi supporters in Sanaa, Yemen                                                    Image credit: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

“U.S. policy toward Yemen has failed catastrophically. …  Allured by the prospect of scoring a huge win against Iran and global jihadists and showing there was a new sheriff in town, the Trump administration … is driving U.S. policy into a deeper ditch. By catering to the Saudis in Yemen, the United States has empowered AQAP, strengthened Iranian influence in Yemen, undermined Saudi security, brought Yemen closer to the brink of collapse, and visited more death, destruction, and displacement on the Yemeni population.”

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Chemical Attack in Syria: Events, Implications, Lessons

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A poison hazard danger sign in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib province, Syria on 5 April, 2017.         Image credit: Ogun Duru / Anadolu Agency

Reflections on the week past

by Elbay Alibayov

There has been a lot of outrage and condemnation of the use of poisonous (supposedly nerve) gas during the bombardment of the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province. Deservedly so: The stockpiling and use of chemical weapons is banned in Syria (since 2013, when the government signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and subsequently started handing over its chemical stocks) and an appropriate action must be taken against those responsible.

This is all clear. What is not clear is who is responsible for what has happened. In spite of wild speculations that evoked the waves of emotional talk exacerbated by the shocking imagery of suffocated children there is not much evidence at this point—neither of the kind and source of the chemical weapons used, nor of those who used it (deliberately or not) in Khan Sheikhoun. And I guess this is rather irrelevant question in the game of geopolitics played in front of our eyes. Whatever happened and whoever did it, the events of this one week have changed the positioning of parties to the Syrian war, at least for the time being. And that is the only thing that matters in this game.

Action—Reaction—Counteraction

Action. Things took off immediately after the airstrike on Tuesday, 4 April by the Syrian Army resulted in the gas poisoning and numerous deaths and injuries among civilians. The media deriving their stories (quite uncritically) from the third (and vaguely defined) sources and the politicians relying on those reports were quick to declare the “crime against the humanity” (which undoubtedly the use of chemical weapons is) and as by default pointed their finger at the regime of Bashar al-Assad as a culprit.  The next day Nikki Riley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations was all around with the pictures of victims and emotional speeches at the emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. Interestingly, her claim seemed to target Russia more than Assad’s regime: “How many more children have to die before Russia cares?”

Reaction. President Trump reacted sharply. In his first response (at a news conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Wednesday 5 April) he stated that Assad had “crossed many, many lines”. It did not take him long to move from statements to action: on Thursday, 6 April the U.S. President authorized the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian military airfield Shayrat “in retaliation after a chemical attack against civilians”.

Counteraction. Russia’s response followed immediately. President Putin called the U.S. strikes a violation of international law.  In a statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Russia suspended the Memorandum of Understanding on Prevention of Flight Safety Incidents with the U.S. aimed at avoiding collisions in the Syrian airspace and has called on the UN Security Council to hold (yet another)  emergency meeting “to discuss the latest developments.”

Whose move is next? What is it going to be about? Whatever it is, at this stage of the game the short combination described above already have scored good points for some, opened opportunities for others, while altering more promising horizons for those who thought to be in more advantageous position before the recent developments.

Implications

The chemical weapon attack in Khan Sheikhoun has had instant implications on a number of important dimensions of the Syrian war. It immediately reversed the tolerance towards Assad as remaining in power and called again for his unconditional removal. Second, it undermined the negotiation process between the regime and the opposition—both the Russians and Turks-facilitated in Astana and the UN-led Geneva talks.

Next, it put in confrontation the Americans and the Russians (given that they rejected each other’s narratives about who was responsible, and later on strongly disagreed about the response) and thus risks undermining their (not an easy otherwise) cooperation in fighting the Islamist militants (both al-Qaeda and ISIL) in Syria and in the region. And altogether it incredibly complicated the course of the war in Syria, which seemed moving towards some sort of settlement.

Of course, there shall be an international independent commission. But it will take time. And its findings may not necessarily be conclusive. The complexity of the Syrian war and its potential to directly influence a broad array of regional and international security issues do not allow for taking much time however. The events in Syria and around are unfolding at high pace, and with this dynamics and the implications of each and every move on multiple directions there is an imperative to clarify certain and very important issues right away.

If not addressed right away, those issues (whatever important they deem at the point of occurrence) lose their significance being displaced or overshadowed by a new wave of events in Syria or elsewhere in the region and across the world. We live in incredibly event-intensive times, after all. So it well may be that next week will see Americans and Russians renegotiating their positions with calm pragmatism they customarily exhibit, while others waiting for their turn to make adjustments. The chemical attack in Idlib (sadly so) would become the fact of history, as did many other no less brutal and outrageous acts of this war.

Scenarios

Okay, one would enquire, if this is the case then what is a point in establishing the responsibility for using the chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun. I would argue that there is a point. Because whatever happens in Syria is not necessarily about Bashar al-Assad, whatever the official rhetoric by the politicians from all sides. Interestingly, this concerns not only external actors but even the domestic opposition groups.

The endgame going on in Syria looks beyond Assad—it is about who is going to control which and how much territory in Syria once the war ends. (As for the regime change… it is more about stability and regional interests as seen by influential external players than about human rights and democratic aspirations of local activists. Example? Well, is there anyone thinking that the regime of al-Sisi in Egypt is any better than the rule of Mubarak seen from this point of view?) Therefore, it makes sense understanding what is going on behind the scene.

One way to find out the culprit(s) is to understand who is interested in such a situation and who benefits from it. And if you look at how things stand from this perspective, you face a paradox: It appears that the Assad regime is the least interested party, among all the internal and external, state and non-state actors taking part in the war, directly or through proxies. All have some unsettled issues, big and small. All but Assad (at least prior to this week).

Things were going perfectly well for Assad and his aides recently, both in terms of military and territorial gains (from the Islamist militants and the rebels alike) and with regards to political positioning (as vis-à-vis the opposition so internationally). Why on earth would Assad “score an auto-goal” (to borrow from Elijah J Magnier) which may reverse the final outcome of the entire game at the time when he is firmly moving towards the win anyways? What is the necessity of using particularly chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun? Was it so strategically important, if not imperative to use? There are a lot of questions to be answered. Just few possible scenarios of what has happened.

Assad. One cannot dismiss any option unless it is proven unjustified. Therefore, the possibility of the Syrian army conducting the chemical attack remains on the table (with all the doubts I raised above). However, all the possible explanations to Assad’s motivation offered thus far sound naïve and even more, desperate to find at least something that sounds convincingly reasonable: “Why did Assad use nerve gas in Idlib? It’s impossible to know. Maybe it was a signal to an increasingly aggressive Israel that he still had chemical weapons, or maybe it was a warning to Russia that he wasn’t a pawn to be traded in a grand bargain with Trump. But most likely, it was a reaction to the free hand he was seemingly given when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said a few days earlier during a visit to Turkey that Assad’s future ‘will be decided by the Syrian people’ — meaning that the United States no longer demanded his departure.”

Coincidence (or good/bad luck for players, depending on their positioning). As always in this life, there is a possibility that this was a sheer coincidence—this is the explanation that Russians are promoting (that the “regular” airstrike by Syrian Army has by accident, randomly hit the militants’ chemical weapons storage while bombing the militants’ general munition warehouse, also used for supplies to Iraq). With little success though, if to judge by the other sides’ rejection of this narrative. Moreover, Tillerson went as far as to suggesting to reporters on Thursday that, “Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent.” Tough an accusation.

Third parties. I am not a big fan of conspiracy theories, but this time around the timing, the selection of subject and even victims (more than twenty children among the overall reported seventy-four people killed), and the immediate and unequivocal reaction—all point to a possibility of well-thought out, in advance planned and timely executed plot.

Lessons

Whoever stands behind it (we may never learn for sure), one lesson to learn is that this war has tied up in one knot so many interests of too diverse actors that ending it is not going to be an easy task, if at all possible.

I recently argued in one discussion that we may have to redefine the notions of “victory” and “the end of war” when it comes to Syria (and perhaps some other places, such as Libya) so that to be realistic of what we as international community (considering that there is still a common interest to qualify as “the community” with regards to this war) actually can and aim at achieving. A year ago, I wrote about Syrian war warning that it was becoming a “perfect war” with no control over it and hence, no peace in sight. A lot of things have changed since, but only tactically.  Strategic interests of major players in this geopolitical game remain unchanged. The attack in Khan Sheikhoun was just another reminder.

That is why it does not come as surprise that experienced politicians saw a window of opportunity for them to re-engage and to attempt at changing, if not reversing, the power balance in Syria (which was shaping towards favouring Russia, Iran and its proxies, and Turkey to certain degree). What else would you read from a statement made by the EU President Tusk made via Twitter: “U.S. strikes show needed resolve against barbaric chemical attacks. EU will work with the U.S. to end brutality in Syria”?

One of commentators this week has concluded his article by drawing the following lesson from the alleged gas attack of Khan Sheikhoun, claiming that “In general … what happened in Syria on Tuesday is a reminder that those at greatest risk of chemical weapons attacks are those whose government wishes to make an example of them.” I would dare suggesting that the scope of usual suspects to be extended in this case as to read that those at greatest risk of chemical (and any other brutal) attacks are those whom the domestic and external players alike wish to make an example in their game. And that means each one of us.

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The roles of the US, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Israel in Syria: moving towards the end of the war

The war in Syria is at its critical junction point, where decisions taken by various state and non-state actors upon the choices available to them at this point of time have a capacity of deciding the fate of the conflict, this way or another. An excellent break down of interests, perceptions and choices presented by a seasoned political risk analyst Elijah J Magnier: “Syria looks both close to and far from the end of the war. There are still both military (against ISIS and al-Qaeda) and political battles (constitution, cease-fire, reconstruction) to be fought. Nevertheless, despite the US and Turkish occupation of Syrian territory which Damascus will have to face one day, there are clear signs that the war in Syria is on track towards its ending.”

Elijah J M | ايليا ج مغناير

The two superpowers have agreed to finish off ISIS in Syria

Al-Qaeda in Syria has lost the support of the people and the countries of the region

Hezbollah fears an Israeli-US-Saudi Arabia war but the facts speak otherwise

Published here:  v

Elijah J. Magnier – @EjmAlrai

The US and Russia have agreed to put an end to the “Islamic State” (ISIS/Daesh) as a priority in Syria, unifying the goal without necessarily agreeing on uniting efforts and coordinating the ground attack. Nevertheless, this beginning will lead the way towards the end of the war in Syria and pave the way to removing essential obstacles (that means all jihadists) on the peace process road.

The US in Syria and the difficult choices:

The United States has pushed hundreds of its special forces and elite troops into the north – east of Syria to maintain a military presence…

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Iran: Preserving the Past, Securing the Future

by Elbay Alibayov

In his recent article, Iran at a Crossroad in 2017, my former colleague Jose Luis Masegosa (who I had a privilege working with at the OSCE in Bosnia) analyses the internal political dynamics in Iran, viewed through the lenses of the forthcoming presidential elections scheduled for May, 2017. This is a timely attempt to look closely at one of the critical events to follow this year. The outcome of the election has a potential to influence not only the internal policies of Iran but to shape political and security processes much beyond its geographic boundaries–including geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East region and the global security arrangements, for many years to come.

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Mr Rouhani attends a congress on 2017 Presidential elections, 25 February 2017

The Complexity of Iranian Politics

To understand the intricacy of developments in Iran, one has to employ the notion of complex systems. The complexity here derives from “multiple actors pursuing a multiplicity of actions and initiatives at numerous levels of social relationships in an interdependent setting at the same time. Complexity emerges from multiplicity, interdependency and simultaneity.” Sounds as something overwhelming, does it not? But that is not all. What makes the analysis and political forecasts even more difficult is that, being a complex system in and by itself (it is enough to note that Iran is a theocratic state with quite a significant modern democratic element in its constitution), Iran is a key component of another, highly complex system that is Middle East and North Africa region. And all of this at the most volatile and uncertain time in decades when the old, post-Second World War global governance is no more effective, while a new world order has yet to take its final shape.

In such a setting, it is important to understand the drivers (ideas and motivations) and decisions taken in each component by its multiple agents; but, even more importantly, the interaction between those connected yet still independently varying components—such as internal political processes in Iran and its neighbouring countries (particularly its rivals Saudi Arabia and Israel, but also increasingly Turkey); proxies and proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen; and foreign policies and regional ambitions of such global players as the United States and Russia; along with non-state actors that seem to become regular players, such as Islamist militants and terrorist organisations (in first hand, al-Qaeda and ISIL).

Internal Rivalry and the Influence of Externalities

The article of Jose Luis Masegosa focuses on the internal politics of Iran, particularly on the rivalry between pro-reform forces led by the incumbent President Hassan Rouhani and principlist conservative groups (frequently referred to in Western literature as “hardliners”) close to Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamanei. The outcome, whatever seemingly favourable for the former forces, is vastly unclear at this point in time, and I dare to guess, will remain so up until the Election Day (which seems to be new normal, if to consider the recent Brexit and US Election 2016 surprises). As the author points out, it will largely depend on the Middle East policy of new US administration and its commitment to respecting the nuclear agreement (also known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) signed between Iran and six world powers back in 2015.

So far, the indication of the future policy of Trump administration point to rather hard line against Iran (but not necessarily dismantling the JCPOA; at least not so overtly) and more reliance on its rivals–Saudi Arabia led coalition of Arab Gulf States and Israel. This has not gone unnoticed in Tehran, where both reformists and conservatives are closely following each and every statement of the new US President and his defence and security aides. And in the meantime, both camps are getting prepared for an epic battle at the ballot box, in a couple of month period.

While President Rouhani puts maximum effort in getting as much as possible benefits from the opportunities opened up thanks to the nuclear deal and in demonstrating some tangible economic improvements, his opponents are consolidating their ranks: Last week,  the Popular Front of Islamic Revolutionary Forces, a coalition of conservative groups,  has nominated ten “semi-finalists” for a single candidate (among them such prominent figures as Astan Quds Razavi Foundation Head and Assembly of Experts member Ebrahim Raisi; Expediency Discernment Council Secretary Mohsen Rezaee; Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf; senior former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili; and former parliamentarian Ali Reza Zakani).

Generational Shift

One of interesting points made in the article of Jose Luis Masegosa is that this year’s election occurs in the broader environment of generational change in Iran. In terms of demographics, the fact that 60 percent of the country’s population are the young people under 30 years of age means that majority of polity, and thus significant part of the voter base, are people who were born in the Islamic Republic and do not have a point of reference to the Shah regime. Another observation of the author related to generational shift is that the leadership of Iran that has been comprised of politicians who ran the 1979 Revolution and established the Islamic Republic under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini is shrinking—the death of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is the latest loss among the old guard.

Whether present political elite (including theocratic leadership and the Supreme Leader himself) will be replaced in the coming years by more moderate politicians or by more aggressive actors (such as former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) of the younger cohort remains largely uncertain, and will depend on a host of internal and external factors and their combination and interplay at any given point in time. That is what complexity is about… so do not believe anyone who claims that they know what is going to happen in the next year—they are either manipulators or totally ignorant (or both).

How the Iranians will decide to secure the safe passage between the past and the future, without sacrificing either tradition or aspirations? And how do they see that future? That is the question of all questions for Iran today.

At a Junction Point

What is possible to say with certainty though, is that this year’s election in Iran come at the moment when both internal political processes underway and changes in regional and global political order have gained a magnitude which may turn it into make-or-break event for the Iranians. This reminds me of an interview given by the Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi back in 1961. Reflecting on the power of national unity at moments when the nation’s destiny is shaped, he has observed: “Twice in my reign I have seen Iranians rise up when all seemed lost… once during the Azerbaijan crisis [1946] and again in 1953 with the Mossadegh affair. … it was like telepathy—a kind of human antenna. The whole nation acted as one to save its past and its future.”

Ironically, in less than two decades the same very national unity challenged his power, effectively ending the longest lasting monarchic rule on the face of Earth. It seems that Iran is approaching yet another such junction point in its millennia long history of statehood. How the Iranians will decide to secure the safe passage between the past and the future, without sacrificing either tradition or aspirations? And how do they see that future? That is the question of all questions for Iran today.

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